US researchers found that "gamifying" a scientifically-supported intervention could offer measurable mental health and behavioural benefits for people with relatively high levels of anxiety.
The mobile app game is based on an emerging cognitive treatment for anxiety called attention-bias modification training (ABMT). Essentially, this treatment involves training patients to ignore a threatening stimulus (such as an angry face) and to
focus instead on a non-threatening stimulus (such as a neutral or happy face).
This type of training has been shown to reduce anxiety and stress among people suffering from high anxiety, researchers said.
In the study, about 75 participants - who all scored relatively high on an anxiety survey - were required to follow two characters around on the screen, tracing their paths as quickly and accurately as possible.
After playing the game for either 25 or 45 minutes, the participants were asked to give a short speech to the researchers while being recorded on video - an especially
stressful situation for these participants.
The videos showed that participants who played the ABMT-based version of the game showed less nervous behaviour and speech during their talk and reported less negative feelings afterward than those in the placebo group.
"Even the 'short dosage' of the app - about 25 minutes - had potent effects on anxiety and stress measured in the lab," said lead researcher Tracy Dennis of Hunter College who co-authored the study with Laura O'Toole of The City
University of New York.
"This is good news in terms of the potential to translate these technologies into mobile app format because use of apps tends to be brief and 'on the go'," Dennis said.
The researchers are currently investigating whether even shorter stints of play - similar to how we normally play other smartphone games - would have the same anxiety-reducing effect.
"We're examining whether use of the app in brief 10-minute sessions over the course of a month successfully reduces stress and promotes positive birth outcomes in
moderately anxious pregnant women," Dennis said.
While it is unclear whether this app would produce mental health benefits in those with clinically-diagnosed anxiety, it does present a compelling case for gamified ABMT acting as a "cognitive vaccine" against anxiety and stress.
The researchers believe that apps could eventually be developed to assist in the treatment for other mental health disorders, such as depression or addiction.
The study is published in Clinical Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.